Students’ emotional health a goal as school year begins SanTan Sun News

Students’ emotional health a goal as school year begins

July 20th, 2018 | by SanTan Sun News
Students’ emotional health a goal as school year begins
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By COLLEEN SPARKS

Managing Editor

An experienced teacher, administrator and counselor will help the Chandler Unified School District enhance its suicide prevention program and steer a team tackling student depression, anxiety and other struggles when classes start next week.

Brenda Ramos recently was appointed the Chandler Unified School District’s director of counseling and social services, a new position.

Her appointment comes at a time when school officials, parents and advocates are concerned about a rash of teen suicides in the East Valley that have claimed the lives of more than two dozen children between 12 and 19 in the past year.

And it comes amid nationwide concerns spurred by the relentless series of school shootings by troubled teens.

Ramos said high numbers of Chandler district students have “high anxiety and depression” and those issues can interfere with their ability to learn in school.

She said the school district created her position because officials recognized the need for someone to focus on K-12 students’ social emotional learning and to support the district’s counselors.”

She also will manage district social workers and psychologists.

Ramos said “social emotional learning” involves teaching children “to manage and understand their emotions, how to show empathy for others” and how to “establish and maintain positive relationships.”

Kyrene School District has adopted a similar approach to addressing students’ emotional needs.

And this school year, AHCCCS will have a full-time suicide prevention coordinator reporting to the chief medical officer, who in turn will meet with a stakeholder group to develop policies and programs addressing the root causes of teen suicide.

Ramos will head a group that plans a more specific suicide prevention campaign in the coming school year.

But she said her position was not created in response to the unusually high number of suicides but because of the “overall status of just what our students are experiencing today.”

“There are some forces that students have to deal with now with social media and technology that really were nonexistent when I grew up,” she said.

“I can’t imagine constantly having to check my cell phone to see if I have so many ‘likes.’ Chandler has really tried to be proactive and stay a little ahead of the game.”

The Chandler district has had a formal suicide prevention program in place for a few years, but “there’s always room for improvement,” she said.

School counselors receive suicide prevention training several times a year. They are taught what questions to ask students, how to record information, when to notify parents and how to follow up to see how students are doing after a crisis.

“It…doesn’t just go away,” Ramos said. “(Students) need help and support not just that year but in future years. Our counselors, psychologists and social workers are very interconnected.”

Suicide prevention campaigns occur every year at each school, but they can look different at each campus.

“We’re still in the planning phases and formation,” Ramos said. “It’s really about creating a community in which we’re caring and learning about one another and making sure we drive that message home to every single student that they understand it is our duty to help.”

She said helping each campus boost its social emotional learning programs will be “a huge piece” of what she and her team do.

Some schools have curriculum to help students deal with their emotions and build positive relationships and others change language used in classrooms to boost the social emotional learning.

“A lot of it happens day-to-day within the classroom,” Ramos said. “Some sites have curriculum; some might just change language in a classroom to foster a more positive relationship.”

For example, teachers might say in a classroom that they like how students raise their hands and sit and wait patiently rather than criticizing specific students who don’t practice that good behavior, she said.

The goal is “building community and building a school culture that is positive,” Ramos said.

Providing “discipline practices that are more restorative” instead of just quickly delivering a consequence to an action is another way to promote social emotional learning, she added.

Engaging students in recycling and other activities to teach them about service, as well as being kind to other people, are also ways to boost students’ healthy emotional growth, Ramos said.

“We’re here to support teachers and our staff and support counselors with what they do, and they do so much every day to make sure we have well-adjusted, happy students that sit and learn,” she said.

“Our counselors wear so many hats. We just want to be a good support for them as they try to take care of themselves and do the best job possible at their sites for their students.”

Ramos also will help create frameworks to ensure schools that do not have social workers on site will get the support they need.

Two social workers are housed at Hamilton High and two others work for the district as a whole. The social workers “will be working with a lot of community-based agencies to make sure families have resources” including counseling, a food bank or other assistance, she said.

Ramos has worked in the district 13 years, including as an assistant principal at Hamilton High School.

She began her career teaching special education in Cleveland Public Schools and was an instructional specialist for the Chandler district and a special education teacher at Andersen Junior High School, where she also served as a counselor and dean and athletic director.

Anne Cordasco, assistant director of counseling and social services in the Chandler district, worked with Ramos at Andersen and said she is “extremely energetic” and “very student-centered.”

“I think the really powerful advantage that she has in any position is that all of her decisions are based on what are the needs of the students,” Cordasco said.

She said Ramos will support teachers, provide interventions, work “collaboratively with parents and teachers” and do whatever is needed to help students.

Cordasco said Ramos also teaches students how to “self-advocate” and she is skilled at working with “a variety of cultures and to be culturally sensitive” to students.

“She can relate to people on such authentic levels,” Cordasco said. “She’s got a real heart for making the world a better place.”

She said social emotional learning is what students will “need to take with them when they take their writing skills or their math skills to real life.” That type of learning helps people learn how to “deal with change,” Cordasco added.

“Brenda’s very astute; she’s very insightful,” she said. “She has a really quick ability to build rapport with students. Because she is so genuine and her caring is really apparent, kids are more open with her and they will tell her, ‘We need this.’”

Haley Elementary School, on South Layton Lakes Boulevard, also is taking steps toward helping students grow emotionally.

The school is participating for the second year in the Be Kind People Project, which provides “unique and culturally relevant youth development programs,” Haley Principal Pam Nephew said.

The program merges academics, character education, fitness, nutrition, digital citizenship, civic awareness, teacher appreciation and family engagement.

The Be Kind People Project is a nonprofit organization in Scottsdale with a mission to deliver opportunities for learning and youth development that spark students’ interest in academic achievement, humanity and healthy living wherever and in whatever way they learn.

“The project initiates social change in schools, influences positive behavior, improves academic performance, and builds a foundation of lifelong values,” Nephew said.

The Be Kind Crew is coming to Haley on July 27 to ring in the school year with two assemblies, when the crew will introduce the 10 Be Kind tenets to students, Nephew said.

“This year, our focus will be on positive behavior incentives for our students and developing a community service project for each student to participate in,” she said. “Also this year, our students will develop their digital citizenship by learning proper cyber skills.”

She said digital citizenship means “teaching children to be responsible, respectful and cautious as they use social media, video game chats or anything age-appropriate related to cyber skills.”

Bogle Junior High School is also going to see some changes. The school on West Queen Creek Road has a new principal, Nathan Fairchild. He had spent the last five years as Bogle’s assistant principal.

Also at Bogle, Kevin Chapin is the new assistant principal. Chapin previously spent the last four years as dean of students at Bogle. Shelamae Woodworth will also be a new assistant principal at Bogle after previously working as a counselor at Perry High School and a dean at Casteel High School.

“The administrative team at Bogle is extremely excited to get started with the upcoming school year,” Fairchild said. “We have a fantastic balance of respect for the history of Bogle as a high-achieving school of choice within the Chandler Unified School District combined with a passion for serving the current needs of our diverse population.”

Bogle also aims to teach students positive life lessons. The Better Bulldog Project is a student organization that tries to make the school a better place by showing acts of kindness and positivity and practicing gratitude.

Students in the program distribute positive notes to students on campus, decorate custodians’ doors, give candy to bus drivers and participate in national programs, including Start With Hello.

The Better Bulldog Project honors students nominated for doing acts of kindness for other people. Last year, more than 50 participants met during lunch or after school to plan, prepare and deliver their projects.

Students will also see changes at Arizona College Prep-Oakland Campus, which has a new principal, Tony Alcala.

He had previously been the dean of students at the school for the last three years and prior to that taught at Bogle and for many years in central Phoenix.

Arizona College Prep-Oakland also has a new assistant principal, Julie Wilkinson, previously the dean at Perry High School.

Alcala said he was excited about his new position because he was raised in Chandler and “now gets to lead one of the top-performing schools in the state that was just awarded the National Blue Ribbon Award last year.”

“I was the first in my family to attend college and now I’m helping kids prepare for college at a very young age,” he said. “We’re ready and excited for the new year!”

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